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Egyptian Court Rejects Transfer Of Two Red Sea Islands To Saudi Arabia, Setting Stage For "Iran Pivot"

Last April, in a move that led to widespread public outrage, the Egyptian government revealed that it had signed maritime demarcation accords that put the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in Saudi waters, in the process handing over the two islands to the Saudi kingdom, a transfer that was widely perceived as a behind the scenes gift from the Egyptian president to the Saudi regime. As Reuters reported at the time, "Egypt's announcement during a five-day visit by King Salman that it would transfer two Red Sea islands to its Saudi ally has outraged Egyptians, who took to social media to criticize the move, which now faces a legal challenge."

Back then, Saudi and Egyptian officials said the islands belong to the kingdom and were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia's founder, Abdulaziz Al Saud, asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them. But the accord, which still needs ratification by Egypt's parliament, caused consternation among Egyptians, many who said they were taught in school the islands were theirs.

As anger spread, various complains were filed in administration court, such as one by veteran lawyer Khaled Ali, arguing that according to a 1906 maritime treaty between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, the islands are Egyptian and the move amounts to a transfer of sovereignty. The treaty precedes the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Ali alleged that the accord violates article 151 of Egypt's constitution, which requires all treaties related to sovereignty to be approved by referendum.

The contested disputed ownership of the islands, similar to comparable naval disputes most notably in the South and East China sea, became a source of tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which had showered its ally with tens of billions of dollars in aid in recent years but suspended petroleum supplies in September amid growing differences between the two nations. As we reported at the time, while Egyptian officials said since that the contract with Saudi Arabia's state oil firm Aramco remains valid and had appeared to expect that oil would resume flowing, Egyptian Oil Minister Tarek El Molla confirmed the Saudis had stopped shipments indefinitely.  "They did not give us a reason," an oil ministry official had told Reuters. "They only informed the authority about halting shipments of petroleum products until further notice."

Since then, tension between the two countries have escalated, and culminated on Monday when an Egyptian court rejected the government plan to transfer the two uninhabited Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in a final ruling that prompted cheers in the courtroom but could deepen tensions with the country's erstwhile financial backer.

According to Reuters, the court's decision was based on "irrefutable evidence" as well as local and international practices which removed any doubt that the islands' sovereignty belonged to Egypt alone, state news agency MENA said.

The abovementioned Khaled Ali called Monday's verdict a "decisive" ruling. "So it is not permissible for the president, or prime minister or parliament or cabinet or a referendum to give up this land," Ali told Reuters. "It is Egyptian land and cannot be given up according to the Egyptian constitution." The lawyers won an initial ruling in June, but the government appealed, sending the case to the Higher Administrative Court which sits on atop the administrative judicial ladder.

Celebrations erupted as the judge read out the ruling, with jubilant supporters carrying Ali and his colleague Malek Adly out of the courtroom. Hundreds of people outside waved Egyptian flags chanted "Egyptian, Egyptian" and "Bread, Freedom, the islands are Egyptian".

"This verdict is a victory for Egypt," Adly said. Perhaps, but it also means the relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia will turn even more frigid, with Saudi Arabia likely to maintain its oil supply embargo to Egypt.

So where will Egypt get its oil? We hinted at the answer in November, when we reported that oil minister El Molla said that he in negotiations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's sworn political rival, to try to strike new oil deals, hinting that Egypt may be the latest to join a fledgling mid-east axis which includes Iran, Syria, Russia and perhaps, Turkey.

Egypt and Iran's diplomatic relations have been strained since the 1970s, and is why according to Reuters, "an Egyptian official visiting Iran would cement a break in its alliance with Saudi Arabia and mark a seismic shift in the regional political order." It has yet to be confirmed if, indeed, Egypt - whose Suez Canal has critical geopolitical importance - has pivoted away from a Saudi sphere of influence (and oil supplies), and into that of Iran.